FDA has approved a controversial Alzheimer’s drug

The drug is the first to show significant progress against the sticky brain plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer's disease.

  • By Scott Hensley, and Jon Hamilton, and Laurel Wamsley/NPR

(Washington) — The Food and Drug Administration approved aducanumab to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease Monday morning. It is the first new drug approved by the agency for Alzheimer’s disease since 2003.

The drug is the first to show significant progress against the sticky brain plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

The drug has proved highly effective at reducing the plaques, called beta amyloid, that build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

But two large studies offered conflicting evidence about whether the treatment slows declines in memory and thinking. A panel of expert advisers to the FDA recommended in November that the agency not approve the drug.

n this Nov. 22, 2019, photo, Charles Flagg, who is stricken with Alzheimer's disease, works on a word puzzle while sitting with his wife Cynthia, right, at their home in Jamestown, R.I.

Charles Krupa / AP Photo

In this Nov. 22, 2019, photo, Charles Flagg, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, works on a word puzzle while sitting with his wife Cynthia, right, at their home in Jamestown, R.I. Flagg is participating in a study on the drug Aducanumab. New results were released on the experimental medicine whose maker claims it can slow the decline of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.

As a condition of approval, the FDA is requiring Biogen, the drug’s maker, to conduct another clinical study to confirm that the reduction of amyloid plaques results in clinical improvement for patients. If the subsequent study doesn’t show a clinical improvement, the agency could move to withdraw the approval.

The medicine will be marketed under the trade name Aduhelm.

Patients will receive the drug in monthly infusions. They will also need regular brain scans to detect a rare side effect: bleeding or swelling in the brain.

Biogen and Eisai, the companies marketing the drug, have yet to announce how much it will cost.

The Alzheimer’s Association, which has been pushing for approval, applauded the news.

“This is the first drug that slows Alzheimer’s disease. And, this is the beginning of a completely new future for Alzheimer’s treatments,” it said in a statement. “This is a new type of Alzheimer’s treatment; it addresses the disease in a way that has never been done before, compared to currently approved drugs.”

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